BBC Breakfast gets the increase in people waiting for NHS treatment wrong

15 April 2024
What was claimed

620,000 more people were waiting for NHS elective care in January compared to when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in late 2022.

Our verdict

This isn’t right. The 620,000 figure refers to the number of cases, not people, and doesn’t account for some missing data. As of January 2024, there were around 300,000 more individual people in England waiting and 360,000 more cases than in October 2022.

On Thursday (11 April) BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty stated that 620,000 more people were waiting for NHS elective care compared to when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took office, but that isn’t quite right.

Ms Munchetty made the comment during an interview with health secretary Victoria Atkins, but appears to have confused the number of cases or “pathways” waiting for treatment with the number of people waiting.

Ms Munchetty said: “The most recent figures available show that the overall number of people waiting for non-emergency treatment is down for the fifth month in a row, but still, the number of people waiting compared to this time last year is up 360,000 and compared to when the Prime Minister came into office is up 620,000.”

Journalists should ensure their reporting of official data is accurate and with the full context.

The numbers Ms Munchetty cited refer to the number of pathways, not individual people, and the 620,000 figure doesn’t seem to account for missing data. 

NHS England data shows that in both October 2022 (when Mr Sunak took office) and January 2023 there were an estimated 7.21 million total pathways open. (This figure includes NHS estimates for trusts with missing data and NHS England has previously suggested this is the most reliable figure to use.)This means that there was an increase of around 360,000 pathways between both points and January 2024, when there were 7.58 million total pathways.

But because some people may be waiting for more than one course of treatment, they might appear on multiple pathways.

The same NHS England data also shows that between January 2023 and January 2024, there were 240,000 more individual people waiting for care. And between October 2022 and January 2024, around 300,000 more individual people—301,214, according to the data—were waiting for non-emergency treatment.

In recent months, we’ve frequently seen confusion over the number of cases and number of patients on the NHS waiting list. We’ve fact checked similar claims from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and Labour party chair and shadow women and equalities secretary Anneliese Dodds, as well as Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney and BBC News journalist Laura Kuennsberg.

Since the BBC Breakfast broadcast, new monthly data for February 2024 has been published.

A BBC spokesperson told Full Fact: “Thank you for drawing this to our attention. We will remind on air staff to be absolutely clear whenever we use data,”

Image courtesy of BBC Breakfast

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